Suicide missions, abuse, physical threats: International Legion fighters speak out against leadership’s misconduct
published by The Kyiv Independent, Ukraine
The story shed light on alleged commanders' wrongdoings, including orders to loot shops and perform reckless military operations legionnaires referred to as "suicide missions." The soldiers also accused their leadership of sexual harassment of female medics, threatening legionnaires with a gun, and stealing the equipment they bought for themselves or received from volunteers.
Added on Dec. 1, 2022: In November, the Kyiv Independent ran a follow-up to this investigation. This second story looks into other alleged misconduct of the leadership of the International Legion, including light weapons misappropriation and physical threats toward soldiers. Read it here.
Disclaimer: The Kyiv Independent is publishing this investigation to shed light on the alleged abuse of power in the leadership of one wing of the International Legion – a legion created for foreign fighters dedicated to defending Ukraine. The members of the Legion’s unit say that they reported their commanders’ misconduct to Ukrainian law enforcement, the parliament, and President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Office, but saw no proper reaction and thus turned to journalists as a last resort. Soldiers who pointed at the problems within this unit of the Legion claim they received threats for speaking up. For their safety, we do not disclose their identities.
- The leadership of the intelligence-run wing of the International Legion is allegedly implicated in various violations, including abuse, theft, and sending soldiers unprepared on reckless missions.
- One of the unit’s commanders and a frequent subject of the soldiers’ complaints is an alleged former member of a criminal organization from Poland, wanted at home for fraud. In the Legion’s unit, he is involved in coordinating military operations and logistics.
- The legion’s fighters accuse him of abusing power by ordering soldiers to loot shops, threatening soldiers with a gun, and sexually harassing the legion’s female medics.
In early May, a fighter from Brazil arrived in Ukraine to join the International Legion following President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call to “citizens of the world” to come and help defend Ukraine.
He thought his vast experience in the Brazilian army had prepared him for pretty much any task.
Yet he was neither ready to carry out suicide missions by order of his command, nor to tolerate orders to loot and steal.
As a platoon commander of the International Legion, he was ordered to do just that.
The Brazilian officer recalls his subordinates saying, before resigning from the legion: “We came here to help these people to fight for this country, against this invasion. We didn’t come here to do exactly what f*cking Russian people do when they’re on Ukrainian soil.”
The Kyiv Independent’s investigation reveals endemic problems in one of the International Legion’s wings that is overseen by Ukraine’s intelligence.
Some of the unit’s commanders are implicated in arms and goods theft, sexual harassment, assault, and sending unprepared soldiers on reckless missions, according to multiple sources.
The allegations in this story are based on interviews with legionnaires, written testimonies of over a dozen former and current members of the legion, and a 78-page report they’ve put together about problems within this particular unit of the International Legion.
For about four months, foreign fighters have been knocking on the doors of high offices asking for help. The report was filed to the parliament, and written testimonies were sent to Zelensky’s office. Alyona Verbytska, the president’s commissioner for soldiers’ rights, confirmed she had received legionnaires’ complaints and passed them on to law enforcement.
But authorities, soldiers say, are reluctant to solve the issue.
The International Legion, soldiers say, consists of two wings. Ukraine’s Ground Forces oversee one. The Defense Ministry’s Directorate for Intelligence, known under its Ukrainian acronym GUR, coordinates the other.
The allegations in this report concern the GUR-run wing of the Legion. At its strongest, this unit had up to 500 people, and comprised about one-third of the International Legion, according to the Kyiv Independent’s sources among the soldiers.
GUR did not respond to the Kyiv Independent’s request for comment by publication time.
According to members of the intelligence-run wing of the Legion, their commanders report directly to the head of GUR, Kyrylo Budanov, who Zelensky also appointed to head the intelligence committee in the president’s office in late July.
Officially, the GUR wing of the Legion is run by major Vadym Popyk. However, he is not running the unit on his own.
The power is in the hands of a few people: Popyk’s right hand, major Taras Vashuk (referred to by soldiers as “young Taras”), an intelligence officer in his late 20s or early 30s, according to the foreign fighters; Vashuk’s uncle, also Taras (referred to as “old” Taras) and also an intelligence officer; and 60-year old Sasha Kuchynsky.
“They are like best buds,” an American legionnaire told the Kyiv Independent of the three men.
Young Taras, old Taras, and Sasha run the operations of the unit. They send soldiers on missions and coordinate the intelligence wing of the Legion’s work. Sasha is also in charge of logistics and supplies.
The legionnaires accuse the trio of various wrongdoings. For the two Tarases, the major complaints concern them sending soldiers on suicide missions.
An American soldier interviewed by the Kyiv Independent described a couple of missions that took place near the southern city of Mykolaiv, one of the war’s hot spots.
Russian troops discovered their squad’s position and started to shell it heavily. The rest of the troops retreated from the secondary position behind them, leaving the squad to hold the front line alone, with no backup.
“We were literally left (behind) and they didn’t want to evacuate us,” the soldier said. His fellow soldier, Scott Sibley, was killed, while three others were severely injured on that mission.
Shortly after the squad escaped the shelling, another group from the same unit was ordered to take the same position.
“We told the commander those positions were discovered by Russians… If we go back there, we are all dead,” the American soldier told the Kyiv Independent.
The older Taras did not listen and sent another group to the very same place, the soldier said. The story repeated itself, but this time with four killed, multiple injured, and one taken captive. The captive soldier, Andrew Hill, now faces a fake “trial” and possible execution in Russian-occupied Donetsk on accusations of being a mercenary.
Sasha Kuchynsky’s actions, however, stand out in their breadth of alleged wrongdoing.
Apart from sending fighters to die, legionnaires said, Kuchynsky forced them to help him loot stores. Fighters told the Kyiv Independent that he is also a heavy drinker who abuses his subordinates.
Another soldier, an American Jew, told the Kyiv Independent that Jewish soldiers experienced antisemitism from Kuchynsky. He emphasized that he did not encounter it from anyone else in the Ukrainian military.
The soldier also says Kuchynsky demanded to have a share of the gear and equipment that the soldier bought for his close peers from the legion. When the soldier refused to give it away, Kuchynsky pointed a gun at him.
“And then Sasha (Kuchynsky) just started yelling, screaming,” the soldier recalled. “He said, ‘I know there’s stuff here. Give me your stuff’.”
“And in front of the translator, he raises his weapon at me. And I was like: ‘You’re gonna shoot me? You’re gonna shoot me.’ And then there’s like this kind of look of, honestly, remorse, but like ‘Oh, f*ck’ and he put down his gun,” the soldier went on.
He said that he once met a legionnaire at whom Kuchynsky had also raised a gun.
According to another American legionnaire, Kuchynsky also harassed female medics in their unit, using sexually suggestive language with them. According to the American soldier, the legion’s medics complained, but nobody did anything about it. The foreign medic he knew that was harassed by Kuchynsky is no longer with the Legion and has since left Ukraine, he said.
When in trouble, legionnaires say, Kuchynsky would turn to Taras Vashuk for a cover-up.
“Sasha would call Taras and get confirmation that he can do whatever he wants to do. And Taras would constantly back him up,” a Scandinavian soldier told the Kyiv Independent.
However, to date, Kuchynsky remains in his de-facto commanding position in the Legion despite his subordinates’ complaints and despite the fact that, according to Ukrainian law, he can’t as a foreigner hold executive roles in the army.
When confronted with legionnaires’ accusations, Kuchynsky refused to address them.
“It’s up to the Military Prosecutor’s Office to address these questions,” he told the Kyiv Independent over the phone. “No comments. I’m busy.”
He then hung up.
An investigation by the Military Prosecutor’s Office wouldn’t be the first time Kuchynsky has had trouble with the law.
According to the Kyiv Independent’s sources inside the legion, Sasha Kuchynsky is not the man’s real name. He is allegedly Piotr Kapuscinski, a former member of a criminal organization from Poland, who fled to Ukraine after several run-ins with the law.
Upon request from the Kyiv Independent, our colleagues from the Bellingcat investigative journalism group ran an image comparison of the photos of Sasha Kuchynsky, provided by the legionnaires, and photos of Piotr Kapuściński from Polish media. The results support the conclusion that the photos are of the same person.
In Poland, Kapuscinski is wanted for fraud and faces up to eight years in prison. According to Polish Gazeta Wyborcza, he has previously served time.
He fled Poland in 2014, and resurfaced in Ukraine two years later. He was investigated in Ukraine for aggravated robbery and sexual assault in October 2016 but was only charged with robbery. In November 2016, he was detained and spent over a year behind bars.
Warsaw asked Kyiv to extradite Kapuscinski in 2017, but Ukrainian authorities said they would first try him themselves.
He resurfaced again in May 2021, when law enforcement searched his vehicle where they found a semi-automatic pistol and bullets and proceeded to search a building that he used, finding explosives. He faced up to seven years in prison for possession of illegal weapons but was almost immediately released on bail of nearly $2,500.
After the all-out Russian war broke out in February, Kapuscinski joined the military, at which point the courts suspended his case and then paid back his bail in May 2022.
His criminal past did not prevent Kapuscinski from getting into the Legion and obtaining an executive role there. The legislation says all foreign recruits must go through background checks before joining the Ukrainian army. It’s not clear whether a criminal record counts as a deal breaker.
In Ukraine, citizens can serve in the military if they have ongoing criminal proceedings or a spent conviction. The law, however, doesn’t refer to foreigners. So when a Ukrainian court suspended Kapuscinski’s case and paid back his bail, it was applying the same norm that applies to Ukrainians.
In the Legion, Kuchynsky (Kapuscinski) calls himself a colonel and wears a colonel’s epaulet, according to the soldiers’ testimonies and the photographs of Kuchynsky the legionnaires provided to the Kyiv Independent. In fact, foreigners are only allowed to serve in Ukraine’s Armed Forces in the lower ranks, as privates, sergeants, and petty officers.
Since the start of the year, the man who calls himself Sasha Kuchynsky has allegedly gone from a criminal suspect on bail to a free man and de-facto commander in a high-profile Ukrainian military unit.
Polish past: Broda, the gangster
According to reports in Polish media, in Poland, Piotr Kapuscinski is known as “Broda” (Beard), an influential former member of the Pruszków gang, once the largest mafia in the country.
He was the right-hand man of the group’s inner leadership, “Wanka” and “Malizna,” and laundered money for them, according to Mariusz Kaminski, a vice president of the Law and Justice party and currently Interior Minister of Poland and a coordinator of Poland’s secret services.
Polish media reported that he allegedly avoided at least 71 charges, including kidnapping for ransom, by cooperating with law enforcement as a “crown witness” in 2009 in the case focusing on the Pruszkow gang.
Some time around 2010-2011, Kapuscinski testified against the murderers of Marek Papala, the Polish police chief, assassinated in 1998. Kapuscinski reportedly confessed that he had assisted the two killers, a Russian and a Belarusian, by helping them to rent an apartment in Poland.
Following his testimonies in “various cases against organized crime,” at least 20 people, including the bosses and other members of the Pruszkow gang, were charged with participation in organized crime. Nine were sentenced while the cases against Kapuscinski were suspended, according to Polish media reviewed by the Kyiv Independent.
In February 2020, he was stripped of the “crown witness” status, in part, for failing to appear in court and when called upon to appear at the prosecutor’s office.
For his alleged wrongdoings in the International Legion, Kuchynsky has already been questioned multiple times.
First, by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) after threatening one of the American soldiers with a gun. According to the soldier, Kuchynsky didn’t face any consequences.
Then, by the Military Prosecution Office following other legionnaires’ complaints against him, according to the Kyiv Independent’s law enforcement sources. The complaints alleged abuse of power, fraud, and assault. Kuchynsky denied the accusations and kept his job. The investigation, however, is ongoing.
Sent to die
The probe into Sasha Kuchynsky, among other episodes, concerns him sending soldiers on what they call a suicide mission in Sievierodonetsk, a key city in Luhansk Oblast that Russian troops seized in late June.
According to the Brazilian fighter who spoke to the Kyiv Independent, Kuchynsky’s orders were inconsistent.
At first, the Brazilian’s unit spent two weeks preparing for a demining mission in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, a southern region.
In early June, a few days into the mission, they were suddenly moved to another location. Kuchynsky ordered them to go to Sievierodonetsk in the eastern Luhansk Oblast and hold a position close to enemy lines.
Going into one of the war’s main hotspots was very different from a demining mission. That wouldn’t have been a problem if they were prepared for it, the Brazilian officer said, but they weren’t.
“We’ve been two weeks preparing these guys with all the type of training and metal detectors and anti mines…and now you’re going to send us to the industrial zone to the urban type of combat. Sasha, this is crazy,” the legionnaire recalls telling his commander.
“I understand. I am with you there, but that’s the order,” Kuchynsky reportedly replied.
The Brazilian fighter started planning the operation in Sievierodonetsk, but neither Kuchynsky nor Taras Vashuk, the other commander, gave him any information – which he said they were supposed to – about the situation on the ground. By then, Sievierodonetsk was a center of heavy fighting. Ukrainian troops would retreat from the city a couple of weeks later.
“A lot of questions asked were not answered, like where friendly troops were,” the Brazilian officer said.
Only later did he learn that the previous group sent on this very mission came under friendly fire by Ukrainian soldiers. Another Brazilian legionnaire was killed and they had to retreat.
“We got into the field without knowing what was going on,” the officer said.
“I realized those motherf*ckers won’t let us plan,” he said of Sasha and Taras. “They would just bring us into the middle of the place, dump us there to fight, dump us there to die.”
Upon arrival, a Ukrainian special forces serviceman filled them in. He told the Brazilian that Ukrainian troops are inside the buildings along their way, but they have no established communication with them so they shoot at everyone who breaks through.
“What the f*ck? How are we gonna pass? These (Ukrainian) guys are gonna shoot at us?” the Brazilian said he asked.
“Yeah, that’s right. We need to hide,” the Ukrainian soldier reportedly told him.
They spent four days there instead of the planned two. They ran out of food and water and asked for rotation, but Kuchynsky, who sent them there, wouldn’t reply.
“Nobody slept, everybody’s super tired. Some of my guys are dehydrated, and one injured guy. And we stood there. That’s when Sasha (Kuchynsky) went off the radar,” he said.
Soon someone they didn’t know got in touch via radio saying a new group was on their way. The soldiers arrived but then left in the middle of the night without saying anything. The next day, another squad came in to replace them.
The Brazilian believes that Kuchynsky had no plan for their extraction.
“A bunch of wannabes, playing with people’s lives,” he said of the unit’s leadership. His account of suicide missions is confirmed by other soldiers – both in their conversations with the Kyiv Independent and in their official testimonies they filed to the President’s Office.
The Brazilian platoon leader and a couple of his soldiers got injured but survived. After finally getting evacuated from Sievierodonetsk, most of the squad fighters decided to quit the Legion.
“We’re not f*cking staying. We’re leaving,” the fighter recalled them saying.
The team of the Brazilian fighter is not the only one that left the Legion, disappointed.
Foreigners quitting the International Legion due to poor organization, lack of equipment, and indefinite contracts have already made headlines across international media.
Shopping mall plunder
Around the time of the Battle of Sievierodonetsk in early June, the legionnaires received a controversial task from Kuchynsky: to drive from their base to a local shopping mall in the front-line city of Lysychansk in Luhansk Oblast and take merchandise from the shops.
“I directly heard Sasha Kuchynsky’s order to the soldiers of my unit to break into the shopping center, collect the furniture and electronics as soon as possible and collect all possible valuables along the way,” a Canadian fighter wrote in his statement following the incident.
According to the soldiers’ official testimonies obtained by the Kyiv Independent, “Sasha” also told subordinates to take whatever they liked: shoes, women’s clothes, jewelry, watches, and electronics.
Many soldiers obeyed as they come from professional military backgrounds where they don’t question superiors’ commands.
“(Normally) you should say ‘yes, sir’ and get it done. Because you believe that your commander knows what he’s asking you to do…You just assume that this action is legal, and you’re going to go for it. You’re not supposed to question it,” the Brazilian legionnaire told the Kyiv Independent.
“Locals saw how we loaded the furniture which made me very uncomfortable. It felt like we were robbing them. I didn’t come to Ukraine for this,” a testimony of a Columbian soldier reads.
“There were local residents near the shopping mall, one of whom, seeing this, shouted insults, and the others looked at us with reproach and condemnation. I don’t know whether it was legal or not but I felt ashamed to carry out the order of Sasha Kuchynsky and take away furniture and valuables from stores during hostilities and in front of local residents who suffered from the war,” a French legionnaire wrote in his statement.
Some soldiers refused to follow the order.
In a video obtained by the Kyiv Independent, some foreigners can be heard in the shopping mall questioning the legality of “Sasha’s” orders.
“We will not be implicated by any means as looters. We will not stand for this,” an English-speaking soldier is heard saying.
He then tells the crowd that he will not stay in front of the stolen goods and is going downstairs to wait until the car picks him up and drives back to the base. “Sasha” becomes angry at the soldiers’ refusal to carry out his orders.
“Listen, (do not set) conditions for me. This is an order, to stay here and wait for the commander. This is an order. You get it? An order. This is the army,” the Polish commander says in broken Russian.
“I do not find that order lawful. We do not see this as reasonable,” the soldier replies.
The video ends with the soldier saying to his peers: “Let’s go downstairs, guys. We are not playing these games.”
According to the legionnaires, Kuchynsky ordered similar lootings on multiple occasions and Ukrainian soldiers were ordered to participate as well.
The legionnaires don’t know where the items were sent to. In a video obtained by the Kyiv Independent, one soldier is heard saying in Russian that the furniture and electronics taken from the mall were for their unit’s headquarters in Kyiv.
According to the legionnaires, they regularly witnessed what they believe were suspicious arms movements.
“The car is coming, the cars going, the boxes of weapons coming, the boxes of weapons going,” one of the American soldiers said.
Despite the legion’s armory rooms being loaded with all sorts of heavy weaponry and ammunition, the soldiers say they often didn’t end up in their hands.
“During my stay in Sievierodonetsk, a civilian vehicle painted in camouflage containing thermal imagers arrived,” a Columbian soldier wrote in his testimony. “They were not distributed among the soldiers due to their alleged absence. Meanwhile, Sasha Kuchynsky proposed to the military personnel of the International Legion to buy these thermal imagers for $300.”
“I think, Sasha Kuchynsky artificially created the impression of a shortage of some ammunition to illegally enrich himself by providing it to fighters (for money) as if from himself,“ another fighter from Columbia wrote in his testimony.
According to him, two of his fellow soldiers damaged their hearing due to the lack of headphones that he knew were in their armory, under Kuchynsky’s control.
Soldiers say Kuchynsky would take away part of the ammunition they would independently receive from volunteers and donors. They called it the “Sasha tax.”
“So you have to give Sasha what he wants. And then you can give (the rest) of this stuff to your guys,” one of the American soldiers said. “Everything just seems like a cover-up. It’s very strange. It feels like an (organized) business.”
The same happened to another American soldier. His shipment arrived at the base while he was on a mission. When he returned, some parcels were gone.
“It was labeled for our team. So basically, simple as that, half of the stuff wasn’t there.”
Waiting for solution
The foreign soldiers say they did not want to publicize the crisis in the International Legion and tried to solve the issue behind the scenes.
They first complained to their commanders, then lawmakers, and finally went as far as the President’s Office. Since the Legion was created upon Zelensky’s order, foreign fighters counted on his administration’s support, but did not get much help from there, they said.
Alyona Verbytska, the president’s commissioner for soldiers’ rights, told the Kyiv Independent she had informed her superiors about the legionnaires’ complaints. She did not elaborate on who exactly she reported to.
In the President’s Office, two people oversee the Legion for Zelensky, according to the Kyiv Independent’s sources close to the Office. They are Vitaliy Martyniuk, a national security expert, and Roman Mashovets, deputy head of the Office and former employee of the GUR intelligence agency.
The President’s Office did not reply to the Kyiv Independent’s request for comment before publication.
Complaining to the President’s Office didn’t work out. Things even got worse, the soldiers said, as those who sounded an alarm about the Legion’s leadership started to feel under pressure and receive threats.
Meanwhile, many professional members left the unit due to alleged mismanagement and problems with paperwork. The Legion failed to provide some of them with official contracts.
“There were really good special (forces) guys. I mean, not from the regular military. A lot of special (forces) guys literally just said: ‘No, thank you. We can’t work like that anymore’,” an American soldier said.
Those who stayed in the unit want it to keep helping Ukraine to stand against Russia. To do it effectively, they believe, the Legion must be reformed under new leadership.
“I have a very, very, very pleasant experience with everybody in the Ukrainian military outside of Sasha and Tarases,” one of the American soldiers said.
“I’ve always just kind of kept my mouth shut. Just because people like Sasha really discredit all of this,” he said.
Note from the authors:
Hi, it’s Anna and Alexander here. We worked hard to piece the evidence together and break this story. We believe it is crucial to shed light on mismanagement in the army, especially in times of war. We wanted to help bring change to the International Legion so it continues to assist Ukraine in defending itself against Russian aggression. Now, however, many legionnaires are resigning due to the commanders’ misconduct.